SALT LAKE CITY — Utility failures are a part of life. But at the University of Utah, power and water failures happen frequently and often last for hours.
Each building on the U. campus spends an average of 16 hours in the dark per year — affecting classes, research and even medical care at University Hospital, said Cory Higgins, director of Facilities Management. Corroded water pipes, 20 years past due for replacement, have caused heating systems to fail and have sent thousands of gallons of super-heated water into the ground and air.
While some repair work is already under way, the university will begin a four-year, $99 million project in July to replace its aging electrical grid and high-temperature water system. It will be the most significant overhaul of the campus infrastructure in 40 years, Higgins said. When finished, the water, heat and power failures that have become commonplace on campus will be "a thing of the past."
Until then, however, Higgins said the campus community should expect more of the same — canceled classes, damaged research, delayed surgeries and geysers of hot steam.
In fact, things may get worse before they get better.
"We started seeing problems in the ’90s and now, 15 years later, it's a disaster," Higgins said.
The director said each year the university makes "band-aid" repairs to the infrastructure, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. When water pipes fail, workers often have to dig for hundreds of feet to first find the problem, and then to locate a section of pipe good enough to weld to.
Among the improvements to the school's infrastructure will be automated systems that will instantly alert facilities staff to the location of a problem, allowing them to make immediate repairs.
"Today we don't know, we basically wait for the calls to come in," Higgins said. "You have to go look for smoke."
The University of Utah was placed among the nation's worst in terms of reliable electricity, according to a 2008 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers study of utility companies.
Kathy Adamson, administrative director for University Hospital, said at least twice a year the hospital experiences a major power outage that impacts the surgery schedule. When power fails, the hospital's policy is to use emergency power only to finish cases that are in progress and treat patients in danger of losing life or limb. Beyond that, incoming emergency patients are diverted to other locations and those who can are forced to wait.
Emergency power also presents unique challenges, she said, with more areas of the hospital relying on ambient light and with personnel using extension cords to connect machinery to power sources. There's also a short window of a few seconds between the time the power goes out and when emergency power kicks on that can be jarring in an operating room.
"It's a lifetime while you're sitting there," Adamson said.
Surgeries, in particular, rely on uniform procedures for safety, she said. While surgeons are trained to perform during emergency power, any change in process or equipment increases the risk for patients. There's also the emotional toll on a patient when surgeries have to be rescheduled, from the anxiety of waiting to coordinating with family who often have traveled long distances.
"I don't think you can ever underestimate the emotional side of that," Adamson said, "especially for a patient when they're sitting in the dark thinking, 'Am I going to be OK?'"
As the project moves forward over the next four years, Higgins said the construction will likely put added pressure on older portions of the system, which are dangerously deteriorated.
To pay for the upgrades, the university received $35 million from the state Legislature and will issue a $49 million bond. Higgins said an additional $15 million will be required from the state — for a total of $50 million — but the money on hand is enough to get the project under way.
"We need $50 million from the state but we didn't need it in the first year," he said.
Adamson said continued failures are a point of concern. She said the hospital's volume grows each year, putting more pressure on their utility systems and patient schedules.
University Hospital is one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in the state, and Adamson said diverting from the U. can put a burden on other locations like Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.
"If it were a mass injury and you didn't have power, you'd have to divert everything to one site," she said. "That would be very difficult for anyone to do."
Higgins said most of the work will be done underground and out of the way of students, but the disruption of an electrical or water failure can be quite dramatic. Power outages generally require a building to be cleared. In July, a water pipe burst, sending a plume of steam into the air that matched the height of the nearby 13-story Social Behavioral Sciences Building.
While July's burst was extreme, it illustrates the danger of the aging infrastructure. David Quinlivan, associate director of Campus Utility Services, said the water passing through campus is heated to between 350 and 400 degrees and has enough pressure to push through concrete or move a car.
In 2010, 12 workers were hospitalized after hot water filled a tunnel where they were working. The company that contracted those workers sued the U. for negligence and a campus spokesman said Wednesday the lawsuit is still pending.
That accident was not the result of old infrastructure, Quinlivan said. But as the steel pipes underground corrode, smaller leaks of the super-heated water become more frequent. He said the older pipe on campus had an expected life of 20 years — which it has doubled — and the new heavily insulated pipe is expected to last 100 years. The reinforcement allows the piping to be buried shallower, which Qunilivan said will reduce excavation costs when repairs do have to be made.
On the electrical side, cables have become brittle — especially at substations where connections are made — and have caused frequent power failures that are a thorn in the side of researchers on campus. Joel Miller, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, said power failures have caused students to lose data, setting them back weeks and in some cases months. After an outage, sensitive machinery can take days to be recalibrated and in some cases never turn back on.
"It's the penalty you pay for high tech," he said. "We just have to eat the time and grumble."
Miller said there are between four and six major power outages each year that put research at risk. He and his staff try to back up as much data as possible but many of the chemicals used in experiments are kept in freezers or oxygen-controlled environments and can be lost if the power is off for an extended period of time.Comment on this story
"We try to be vigilant but you can never anticipate every little thing," he said.
Qunilivan said the infrastructure has been in need of an overhaul for years, but the problem finally became too much to ignore.
"You can't provide the students with a quality educational experience if they can't go to class," he said.
The project will be rolled out in segments over the next four years to reduce the disruption to campus. Quinlivan said the most at-risk areas of campus have been identified and will be upgraded first.